UPDATE: As the commenter below points out, this post is very out of date. I make suggestions regarding specific services (SugarSync) that are no longer valid (since SugarSync no longer has a free plan). Nonetheless, the general advice I give is still valid. That is, it’s important to sync and backup, it’s important for it to be set and forget, etc. In my case, using Office365 is a good option. It’s not free but it does a good job of syncing and backing up and storage comes with a subscription to Office, which I’m guessing most people will now have. If you beg to differ, or if you have other suggestions, please let us know in the comments.
I’m not going to go through all the reasons for backing up your dissertation. I’m sure you are aware of the risks and, in fact, I’m sure you are using some form of backup to safeguard against the loss of your dissertation. You might be backing up versions of your dissertation to a thumb drive or you might be emailing yourself a copy at the end of every day.
In this post I’d like to suggest that there are some easy and free ways to do a better job of backing up your dissertation. I won’t go through all the options. Instead I will suggest one system that I used, explain the basic features it has that I think every backup system should have and then point you to some other options in case you would find one of those more interesting.
Backup vs. Sync
Let me first make a slight distinction between backing up and syncing, at least as I understand it.
When people speak of syncing they are talking especially about keeping one file that is located in two or more locations up to date in all locations. There should never be any difference between the file in one location and the same file in another location. The emphasis on sync is a continuous updating of the file in all locations.
Backup is slightly different. The emphasis with backup is keeping a second copy of a file in a secure location so that it can be retrieved if anything happens to the original file. With backup you might not be continuously updating the backup copy. You usually backup on a regular basis (daily, weekly, etc.) but not necessarily continuously.
Another thing about backup is that the file is not necessarily immediately accessible. It might be compressed or encrypted and you will need to “restore” the file in case you need it.
Both of these two ways of doing things have their place in preventing the loss of your work and I recommended either using both systems or a system that has certain elements of both.
How I Backed Up My Dissertation
While I was writing my dissertation I chose to both backup and sync my dissertation using two different services. Primarily, I chose to sync my dissertation to the cloud and supplement that with another system for backing up my dissertation to another computer or to another location in the cloud.
You may be familiar with Dropbox as a cloud storage service. Dropbox is great but it’s expensive and has an annoying limitation. You need to have a special folder on your computer into which you put all the files you want to back up (there is actually, software to work around this but it’s not officially supported and so not the ideal solution).
SugarSync is more expensive than DropBox for paid storage but they offer 5 GB of free storage instead of 2 GB. For me, 2 GB was not enough for all of my dissertation files but 5 GB was. The other advantage of SugarSync is that you can select any folder to sync to their servers (to the cloud). This is actually important, as I will explain below.
With SugarSync, once you have installed their software and selected the folders you want to sync, then whenever you save any changes to any file in those folders, those files will be immediately updated in the cloud. This is great because it minimizes the amount of data that you can lose and, most importantly, you don’t have to remember to do anything. It happens automatically.
Sync ALL Your Files
As you are setting up SugarSync, or whatever service, make sure you sync all of the files you are using for your dissertation, not just the dissertation itself. That means back up all your notes, copies of articles, searches, versions, AND your Zotero database!
Don’t forget your Zotero database.
This is where another SugarSync advantage comes into play. You’ll probably want to leave the Zotero folder in its original location while you sync it to the cloud.
To find your Zotero database: open up Zotero, then go to Preferences>Advanced and look near the top of the window to find the location of your data directory. Once you’re there, click on the button that says “Show Data Directory.” This will open up a window in Explorer. Once there, you’ll need to go up one level, then right click on the folder called “zotero” and click on “SugarSync” and “Add folder to SugarSync.” Of course you need to be running SugarSync for this to work.
The disadvantage of SugarSync is that it only keeps the five most recent versions of your dissertation stored on its servers. This is where backup comes in. If your file somehow becomes corrupt then depending on how often you save, you can easily end up with five corrupt versions stored in SugarSync.
To avoid this problem use a backup system to keep a version of your dissertation that is stored daily. It might be enough to do this with your thumb drive or by emailing the file to yourself at the end of everyday, but there are also ways to do this that are free and automatic. Mozy is one such solution. Mozy only offers 2GB of free storage but that should be enough to backup the files you are working with on a daily basis.
Set but Don’t Forget
The most important advantage of the systems I’ve just demonstrated are that you set them up and they work automatically in the background. They call that “set and forget” and it’s a very important feature of a good backup system. Whatever you do, make sure you have a “set and forget” system.
But there is also a hidden disadvantage to this. For example, you might make a mistake in the way you set up the program and find out only too late that all this time you haven’t been backing up at all. To avoid this problem just make sure you test the system to make sure it works. Can you retrieve your work from the cloud? Is it the latest version or is there a problem with the continuous sync?
But don’t just make sure you’ve set the software up properly. Every once in a while open up the software and make sure your latest version is safely stored online.
The bottom line is, whatever you do, use a “set and forget” system. But don’t set and forget.
Important Features of Any Sync/Backup System
If you are not happy with the specific solution I’ve suggested here then you might want to do some further research on your own. If that’s the case then I recommend consulting this chart from The Verge, that, though not exactly the latest news, still has some pretty up to date data (it may even have been updated since first being posted.)
Also, you might be interested in what I consider to be some important features of any backup/syncing system for your dissertation.
Set and Forget
Whatever system you use must be set and forget. You set up the system once and it works in the background without you ever having to think about it, except when you need to recover a lost file. Don’t rely solely on sending yourself an email with the latest version or backing up to a thumbdrive at the end of the day.
Finally, make sure to back up not only your dissertation but everything associated with it. For example save and backup your searches, your research notes, your Zotero files and settings, and whatever else you do that is in any way related to your dissertation.
Sync plus Backup -or- Versions
Use sync and regular backup. Use sync to save your work as you go in order to minimize the amount of work that you can lose. At the same time, use some system of backup to make periodic versions of your work. If your synced versions become corrupt then you turn to the backup system to get the most recent non-corrupt version.
Alternatively, you can use a sync system that saves an unlimited number of versions. This would effectively be the same as a backup system. Cubby is a very good service that saves an unlimited number of versions. (On the other hand, I haven’t been able to get it to back up my Zotero folder).
Backup to the Cloud
Backup to the cloud. When you back up to the cloud you are backing up to servers that have built in redundancy. It’s as if you were backing up to at least two external drives that you keep in different locations.
If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t using an online backup or sync service. That is, you’re probably not paying money for storage space in the cloud. If that’s the case, don’t buy space just for your dissertation. It’s not necessary. There are plenty of services that provide enough free space to handle all your dissertation files.
On the other hand, it’s possible you should be backing up other files as well and maybe you should think about investing in enough space in the cloud to save your other work, your family videos and photos, etc. If that’s true, it would be nice if whatever backup system you elect has decent storage pricing so you don’t have to switch services in the future. Right now it seems the best and cheapest way to back up larger amounts of data is SkyDrive. There is also a way to set up SkyDrive.
Sync Multiple Folders
The main reason I use SugarSync for my dissertation is because it is the only service I found that allowed me to keep my Zotero data in its original location and sync it to the cloud. Services like Dropbox create a “Dropbox” folder and all files that you want to sync must go into that Dropbox folder. I don’t like this because it disturbs my normal work flow. If this doesn’t bother you, then you will have a number of other options.